April 20, 2010
Drowning Death of Monk Seal Heartbreaking
Young female foraging for food ensnared in gill net
by Inga Gibson, Hawaii State Director, and Sharon Young, Marine Issues Field Director
She was only nine months and 19 days old when she was found dead April 13. Mikala, a healthy female Hawaiian monk seal, drowned in an alleged illegal gill net, in an area she is known to swim and play in.
As is the case with monk seal mothers, Mikala’s mother nursed her from the time of her birth, never leaving her side. It was once the youngster was on her own foraging for food and exploring her habitat that she was fatally caught in the gill net.
Her death is only the latest tragedy for this beleaguered and endangered species, which continues to face many obstacles to survival.
»The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates approximately 1,100 monk seals are left out of a much larger population that once ranged throughout the Hawaiian Islands, including the Main Hawaiian Islands and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It is estimated that approximately 113 to 150 seals reside in the MHI.
»Within the past two years, at least four monk seals were deliberately killed. One of the perpetrators confessed and was given a paltry fine and suspended jail sentence.
»The seals' population has been in a precipitous decline, averaging 4 percent a year. Multiple factors are causing decline of the precious and rare species, however, human-related causes are most often to blame. For example:
- Because of depletion and competition with other species for food, these animals are quite often in harms way foraging off shore for food. Gill nets add to the overall health and depletion of reefs and fish for all species, including humans;
- The seals often are injured by marine debris and drown from gill net entanglement when trying to swim and forage in areas where the nets are located. Between 1990 and 2006, 37 monk seals were seen with imbedded hooks. Those hooks can usually be removed, or in the case of barbless hooks many animals manage to disentangle themselves;
- Gill net entanglement: Between 2002 and 2006, four seals were entangled in near-shore gill nets. Observers have reported three more in the past three years. Unlike the hookings, monk seals do not survive these drowning nets.
Monk seals throughout the world are imperiled. The Caribbean monk seal is extinct, largely due to overhunting. Mediterranean monk seals are highly endangered largely as a result of intentional killing or interactions with commercial fisheries.
While it wouldn’t have helped in Mikala’s case, the Hawaiian legislature is in its final stages of passing a bill—led by the Hawaii Marine Conservation Institute, Save our Seals, Hawaiian Monk Seal Response Team of Oahu, and supported by The HSUS and many other animal and environmental protection groups—to increase penalties for the intentional killing of an endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Hawaii SB 2441).
The HSUS is actively involved in reducing fishery related mortality for a variety of marine mammals and is committed to advocating for strong protection and enforcement of laws. Monk seals like Mikala can’t survive if they continue to lose their lives as a result of human-related causes that we can—and must—end. Their future is in our hands.